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Path to Reopening: The Fox Theatre Restoring Its ‘Heart and Soul’ During Shutdown

The historic theatre will likely be among the last to reopen, but it’s using the time away to restore its majestic organ, marquee and more.

Published: 09/03/2020

The Fox Theatre is using the time it must be closed to restore its canopy, organ and more. Image Credit: ALIVE COVERAGEThe Fox Theatre is using the time it must be closed to restore its canopy, organ and more. Image Credit: ALIVE COVERAGE

BY ELLIE HENSLEY

The Fox Theatre in Midtown Atlanta has an energy of its own, standing at the corner of Peachtree Street and Ponce de Leon Avenue as a symbol of not only arts and culture but also public life. Due to COVID-19, that historic street corner has remained largely quiet since mid-March, with a silence that seems to permeate the district.

“We had planned for almost every contingency — fire, civil unrest,” said The Fox Theatre President and CEO Allan Vella. “But a pandemic is not really something that can be adequately planned for, and we never imagined a situation where the economy shuts down, let alone the entire touring industry.” 

The Fox earned recognition last year for being the highest-grossing venue of its size worldwide, selling 5.28 million tickets to 1,825 performances. But since the pandemic began and live entertainment acts have stopped touring, the theater hasn’t sold any tickets for in-person events.

“We present content that is already created, we’re not creating it from the ground up,” Vella said. “It’s been difficult to shut off our doors and turn off the lights.” 

A team of restorers spent 10-12 hours a day on the Fox's canopy.

Time For Some Tune-Ups

Without its usual flurry of live concerts, theater productions and private events, The Fox Theatre has had time to complete significant restoration work on both its interiors and exteriors. These include updates to the 14-year-old marquee, the message center underneath the Fox’s upright and restoration of the Bedouin tent-style canopy over the balcony. 

“The canopy is one of our largest architectural features, and it has never been restored,” said Vella. “We had planned just to clean it, but it was such an endeavor that scaffolding had to be built over 90 feet in the air. We decided since we had the additional time to fully manually restore it.” 

A team of restorers spent weeks on the project, which would never have been possible if not for the COVID-19 shutdown.

A tech cleans the organ skirt on Mighty Mo.A tech cleans the organ skirt on Mighty Mo.

The Fox is also in the process of reworking the console of its 1929 Moller pipe organ, “Mighty Mo,” which is the second-largest theater organ in the country behind the Wurlitzer at Radio City Music Hall. The Mighty Mo is completely unlike an average church organ — it has more than 3,500 pipes ranging from the size of a ballpoint pen to nearly 32 feet tall, and it also has a marimba, xylophone, glockenspiel, sleigh bells, a gong and a grand piano. 

“It was designed, at the time, to support films prior to ‘the talkies,’ so it had to prove sound effects that were custom to the theater,” Vella said. “It’s something we treasure. It’s the heart and soul of the theater.” 

Mighty Mo is being fully rebuilt, though its original pipes will be maintained with the original console. Once rehabilitated, it will be able to endure another wonderful 90 years at the Fox.

 

Only An Intermission

In August, The Fox Theatre introduced several virtual events, such as a livestream of Mighty Mo in concert sponsored by the Atlanta Chapter of the America Theatre Organ Society. Because the original organ console is still away being restored,, organist Ken Double played a temporary console built in Lithonia to showcase a wide variety of music, including selections from Phantom of the Opera and Ray Charles’ “Georgia on my Mind.” It was an intimate evening that featured only Double on the keys and close-ups of the majestic organ, a vantage point that even theater regulars don’t normally get to experience. Click here to watch a replay.

Performing artist Chris Daughtry also performed his Live From Home virtual tour for The Fox Theatre in August, allowing fans to support the venue through a percentage of ticket sales and tips that went directly to the Fox. The show used geofencing technology to allow only fans within a certain distance to purchase tickets and was curated for the Atlanta area by Daughtry through a Q&A, stories and song requests.

But The Fox, which usually hosts about 250 live events a year, currently doesn’t have any other paid events on its calendar.

“Whether it's music or a Broadway tour, in order for an artist to make an investment, they need to know they can recoup that investment in 25 to 30 major markets,” Vella said. “Right now, everyone is essentially sitting on the sidelines. A lot of tours that were initially pushed back to fall or the holiday period were looking at the first quarter, and now a lot of those are looking at late 2021 or even 2022.”

Vella described his industry as a whole as  “at a standstill.” It ripples through not only those directly employed by theater, but also hotels, parking lots, restaurants, bars and other businesses that surround them.

“The Fox has a total economic impact of $42.2 million a year, and we’re historically one of the highest grossing theaters in the world,” Vella said. “When you turn that off, it has a devastating impact on almost anyone it touches. We’re not buying popcorn, ticket stock or cleaning supplies.”

But Vella and the Fox team are doing their best to be optimistic and find ways to connect while the theater’s doors remain closed. In the earliest days of the pandemic, The Fox’s marquee read “This is only an intermission,” a message that made headlines and was shared hundreds of times on social media. “Stay safe and we will see you soon, Atlanta!”

Source: The Fox Theatre's Instagram
Source: The Fox Theatre's Instagram

In August, the theater teamed up with local drone company SkyFire Consulting to film a dizzying tour of its hallways, ballroom, auditorium and Marquee Club for those who are missing visiting the theater in real life.

The Fox is also now booking for private events like weddings and corporate seminars, with social distancing protocols in place. 

If you'd like to show your support to The Fox, you can make a donation to the Fox Theatre Institute here. Vella looks forward to the day the theatre can once again hold performances under its flickering "stars," but keeping employees and guests safe is his top priority. The Fox has yet to set a reopening date for its first show.

“The entertainment business was one of the first to shut down, and we will be one of the last to reopen,” I’m really hoping that when we do reopen, Midtown, Atlanta and the rest of Georgia will come out and embrace us.” 

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